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House Republicans scrutinize Biden with restored oversight tool

Resolutions of inquiry are back, and they hint at the GOP’s future plans

Lawmakers have some questions for President Joe Biden — and their resolutions of inquiry point to what the next session of Congress could look like.
Lawmakers have some questions for President Joe Biden — and their resolutions of inquiry point to what the next session of Congress could look like. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Tom McClintock wanted to learn more about President Joe Biden’s response to known or suspected terrorists trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. So the California Republican introduced a resolution to ask the Homeland Security Department for any document relating to encounters like those since Biden’s inauguration. 

The type of measure that McClintock introduced is a resolution of inquiry, a legislative tool that Congress can use to request information from the executive branch. Such resolutions had become rare during the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to new House rules that weakened them. 

Since those limitations were removed in July, however, House Republicans have made quick work sponsoring dozens of the resolutions to seek information from the administration. 

They foreshadow what investigations Republicans might pursue should they retake the House in the November midterms. Drawing attention to the southern border would be one goal, for example. 

McClintock’s resolution focuses solely on terrorists entering between ports of entry from Mexico, ignoring the border with Canada. (Both borders saw encounters with people in the terrorist screening database in the past fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency reported 165 such encounters in the south — 67 at ports of entry, 98 between the ports — and 313 in the north, all at ports of entry.)

Offshore oil and gas drilling was another hot-button topic this summer and fall for resolutions of inquiry, with Republicans taking aim at the Interior Department. And other resolutions touched on inflation, COVID-19 vaccines and the FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.

Even if Republicans fall short of expectations in the midterm elections and fail to regain the House, these resolutions of inquiry could signal what their strategy would be for another two years in the minority. Dealing with them has taken up sizable chunks of House committees’ time.

“I’m not naive, I knew Republicans would start to abuse the system once we removed the restrictions. We knew they would once again use resolutions of inquiry to stall, delay and obstruct the work of Congress,” Rep. Jim McGovern said by email in response to questions. 

The Massachusetts Democrat is the chairman of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over the rules of the House. Yet, he doesn’t regret the decision to return resolutions of inquiry to their full force. 

“I’m somebody who believes in regular order. As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, it was appropriate to lift the pause,” McGovern said. 

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Rules panel, has a different take. He brushed off charges of obstructionism.

“When you take the ability to do something away, when it’s restored you’re going to get an explosion of built-up frustration and activity. [Resolutions of inquiry] are not difficult to deal with. Democrats are afraid to cast votes,” he said. 

A representative doesn’t need to file a resolution of inquiry to request information from the president or an agency head — they can just ask. However, members of Congress can use such a resolution to bring attention to an issue or force their colleagues to take politically tough votes.

House Democrats in May 2020 restricted the use of these resolutions to limit the number of votes members had to take. 

“When we paused resolutions of inquiry, it was before COVID vaccines were rolled out. We did it to keep members and staff safe — especially after some Republican members made it clear that they would try to bog down Congress and force votes even on noncontroversial issues they agreed with, putting all of us in danger,” McGovern said.

Soon after Biden was sworn in, Republicans on the Rules Committee accused their counterparts of continuing the limitations on the resolutions to shield the president from oversight. 

“This administration for its first two years has had very little in the way of oversight because they not only have the majority in both chambers … but they also had a period where I think [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] has run the House in unprecedented ways — stripping away routine tools that the minority has,” Cole said.

Resolutions of inquiry hold appeal for the minority party because they can, under certain circumstances, be directly brought to a vote before the full chamber under a privileged status. During the pandemic, House Democrats had been putting this process on pause. 

But even now, with the full power restored, House majority leaders have a play to make. They can block the resolution from receiving a privileged status by marking it up in the committee to which it’s been referred, which is exactly what eight committees have already done for most of the 52 resolutions that Republicans have offered since July. 

To compare, House Democrats offered 14 such resolutions in the 115th Congress (2017–18), when they were in the minority and Trump was president. 

In most instances, the House committees over the past few months have voted along party lines to report the Republican-backed resolutions adversely, which means that a panel is opposed to the full House approving a measure.

This was what happened to McClintock’s resolution about terrorists entering the country illegally, as well as resolutions ranging from far-right Rep. Paul Gosar’s questions about ivermectin and the Mar-a-Lago search to one probing the “Biden family’s international business schemes” introduced by Rep. James R. Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

If House Republicans take the majority in the midterm elections, Cole said there will be more oversight of the Biden administration. 

“I would expect the lines of inquiry that are laid out in the resolutions of inquiry will be pursued by many of the members and several of the committees,” Cole predicted. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last month did vote 54-0 to favorably report a resolution that would direct the president to provide documents relating to the recall earlier this year of infant formula manufactured by Abbott Laboratories, which significantly contributed to a national formula shortage

Likewise, the House Small Business Committee last month voted 25-0 to report without recommendation a resolution to request that the Treasury Department submit documents dealing with pandemic assistance for small businesses.